Hard to find truth about Turkey's restive southeast, says HRW director

Hard to find truth about Turkey's restive southeast, says HRW director

Cansu Çamlıbel - ISTANBUL
Hard to find truth about Turkeys restive southeast, says HRW director Conflicting reports from locals, rights groups, the media and the government make it almost impossible to find the truth of what is going on in curfew-stricken areas of southeast Turkey, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Director Kenneth Roth has told daily Hürriyet in an exclusive interview. 

“We were getting completely different stories from different people we spoke to about whether it was the government or the PKK that was not allowing in care. We don’t know what’s happening,” Roth said during his recent visit to Turkey, referring to the situation in Cizre, a town where several injured civilians have been trapped in a basement without medical care for over one week.

There has been a great deal of criticism of the EU’s position on refugees. How did we end up here? What kind of implications might this have on Turkey’s position vis-à-vis refugees? 

In our view, any solution towards the refugee [issue] should be voluntary, not involuntary. The EU is proposing to give Turkey 3 billion euros, which is great. It can be spent on things like jobs, education, and health care to make it more possible for refugees to envision a life in Turkey until they can return to their home in Syria. That is a voluntary solution, because I think many refugees would like to stay close to Syria if there is a reasonable future for them. But Turkey should resist any coercive measures. It should not be closing the Syrian border, it should not be pushing people back to Syria and it should certainly be preventing people from getting on boats and heading to Greece. The aim should be encouraging people to stay in Turkey, not forcing them to do so. 

Is that the current trend now? We know that Turkey has been building walls in some parts of the border. 

We spoke today with the government. The argument they make is that they need to look out for the transfer of arms between the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and the PYD. But that doesn’t explain why, for example, the border has been closed between Gaziantep and Aleppo. It is one thing to monitor the border to make sure fighters don’t cross, but that border should be open to refugees trying to flee. The government claims it is, but in fact it isn’t. So I hope they can bring reality into line with their claim. 

It is interesting to hear the argument that they are building the wall to monitor arms transfers between the PYD and the PKK. Ankara had long been criticized for not sealing the border to stop the transfer of ISIS fighters and arms. 

Obviously there was too much tolerance for ISIS for too long. Presumably that has stopped now. But these latest anti-arms efforts should be distinct from the treatment of refugees. It should be entirely possible to block arms and foreign fighters while still leaving the border open to refugees. 

What did you talk about in your meetings with the government in Ankara? 

We are not allowed to go into that, it is supposed to be off the record. I can give you what we talked about in broad terms but I can’t get into names. 

At the press conference, you and HRW senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb described details that you observed on the ground in the southeast. What is your take on the situation and what did you share with government officials? 

It is very hard to get to the bottom of the facts. We were focusing particularly on getting medical access to injured people in a basement in Cizre. We were getting completely different stories from different people we spoke to about whether it was the government or the PKK that was not allowing in care. We don’t know what’s happening. But I can state the principle that both sides have a duty to commit to medical care to the injured. If there is an urgent military necessity it can be delayed for a short period. But in this case we are talking about hours. Some accommodation should be found to let injured people access medical care. 

What was the government response? 

The government said it is ready to send the medical care in but the PKK was not allowing this. Then we talked to others who said the problem is actually the government. So we can’t get to the bottom of it yet. 

I understand that you met Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] representatives as well? 


What about the other opposition parties? Have you had meetings with them? 

We met the HDP and the [Republican People’s Party] CHP. That is all we have time for. 

No meeting with the [Nationalist Movement Party] MHP then? 

We would have liked to. But we just didn’t have the chance. 

How can Turkey emerge from this conflict and remove clashes in the streets? This new generation of Kurds involved in clashes has quite a different perspective on resolving the matter compared to previous generation. What is the way forward? 

Everything I say about the southeast has to be qualified by our lack of access because of the curfews and the media block out. There is a shortage of information because of restrictions imposed by the government. But one striking thing is that the hostilities are now occurring much more within populated areas compared to the past. Another thing is that much heavier weaponry is being used. Both these things lead to concerns about civilian casualties. If at all possible, fighting within civilian populations should be avoided. Using heavy weaponry in densely populated areas should also be avoided. 

Do you see any room for hope at this point of a return to the negotiation table? 

That is perhaps a political question. All I can say is that the more you have civilian casualties, the more divisions can do harm. So if the hope is to revive talks at some stage, it is essential to do everything possible to spare civilian casualties.

I remember in the past you criticized opposition groups in Syria because of the methods they were using. There has been strong criticism from the Turkish government toward the PYD and how it treats local the Arabs. Do you have similar observations about the PYD’s actions? 

We published a report on the PYD in June 2014. Our principle at that stage was about the use of child soldiers. We haven’t been back there recently, but there are accounts of the PYD pushing Arabs out of villages. But we haven’t been able to document that in any detail ourselves. 

Are you planning to produce a new report on this issue? 

That is something we would very much like to do. But there is a lot going on in Syria and we are torn in different directions. 

In Turkey, what do you think about the government’s recent backlash against academics who signed a pro-peace petition?

It’s a complete overreaction. If you read the petition, it’s a standard set of complaints that arrives in virtually any war situation around the world where people are concerned whether excessive force is being used. They are worried about the treatment of civilians. These were completely ordinary and legitimate objections. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the content, but the right to express these objections is fundamental.
This right is exercised in war situations around the world. For the government to pretend that this is somehow inciting terrorism is a complete affront to the basic principles of free expression.

Did you talk to the Turkish authorities about this? 

Yes. I also brought it up last week when we met with Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu in Davos. It was he who talked about this being “incitement of terrorism.” But that is nonsensical when you read what was actually said in the petition. 

Davutoğlu has even demanded a formal apology from the signatories. 

What makes me worry is that we see this attack on the academics as part of a broader effort to undermine independent checks on governmental power. I think you have to understand it in the context of efforts to silence the independent media and to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The attacks on the academics are really part of an effort to silence civil society. You have three key institutions that monitor and check executive authority and all of them are under attack in Turkey. 

In the past, reports like yours issuing warnings were taken with higher respect. But in recent years there has been a general trend that the government almost neglects the observations and doesn’t really care anymore. 

I don’t know about that. But I was struck by [the state-run] Anadolu Agency’s recent report: Reading its account of our press conference it is almost as if we didn’t discuss Turkey at all. That is something. If they didn’t care they would have honestly reported what we discussed. The entire reason for holding the press conference in Turkey was because Turkey was discussed more than any other country in the report. But you’d never know that from reading Anadolu Agency. 

What I meant by suggesting “they don’t care” is that the West seems to have little leverage left on Turkey. 

It’s more mixed than that. In the case of the EU, it is utterly fixated on the refugee crisis and that has given it an incentive to downplay concerns about human rights developments in Turkey. In the case of the U.S. I think it is a bit more mixed. If you look at Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit, he was actually quite outspoken on restrictions on freedom of expression. He was a little understated about the situation in the southeast and I suspect this was due to the U.S.’s alliance with the PYD. But at least he expressed concern about the crackdown on independent voices. 

You recently wrote an interesting essay about how repressive governments learn from each other. Are we talking about a new kind of “solidarity” between different leaders in the current generation? 

You do find that kind of solidarity at, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Council, where one autocrat will defend another, figuring that if he doesn’t then his turn will come tomorrow. But I actually think that what I described in the essay was less “solidarity” and more simply learning from each other. This technique of trying to deprive the independence of specific groups, for example, is something that different governments are learning from each other to pressurize their critics and threaten their ability to exist. 

Despite growing civil society awareness, these techniques still work and the winners are the states. What is the future for civil society? 

I think there are three main tools working in favor of rights. One of them is protest from the West. Part of the reason for my essay was to encourage governments to respect rights and to not be fooled by the nationalist rhetoric behind the restrictions. The nationalist rhetoric really just masks an effort to escape scrutiny on the part of these autocrats. So I do think that pressure from the West and pressure from the governments is still an important tool. 

A second tool is the economy. If you look at governments that have crushed civil society, they also tend to be on a downward economic trajectory. Few people want to invest in a government that is afraid of its own people; an unchecked autocratic government is not a safe place to invest. Preventing people from organizing freely tends to be a recipe for economic decline. I think governments will recognize this in time. 

The third factor is the power of civil society since the advent of social media. The reason why autocrats are so scared is because civil society has become supercharged through its capacity to bring people to the streets quite radically through social media. Turkey saw that with the 2013 Gezi protests. We also saw it with the Arab Spring, in the Maidan movement in Ukraine, and in the protest movement in Hong Kong. We are going to see more of these. 

I think that trying to put people back in the bottle and prevent them from voicing their concerns about official misconduct, is a futile effort in the long run. Governments are using every tool they can but I don’t think they’re going to be successful in the long term. 

One interesting dimension of the Gezi protests was the way it created a deeper awareness among protesters of what happened in Turkey’s southeast over the last 20 years, which was largely hidden from the public. That trend continued until the June 2015 elections. 

Do you think that trend will be stopped by recent clashes? 

The government is trying to return to the old days where the public was ignorant about the severity of the crackdown in the southeast. But this is a different era. It is not enough to silence the journalists and to scare the academics, because the rise of social media means the word gets out very easily. We are living in a much more open era in which governments can no longer hide their abuse and misconduct. It will get out in the end. 

So you are hopeful that awareness can’t be killed.

I don’t pretend that progress is linear and the world is getting better and better. Turkey is clearly going through a dark era in which the [Justice and Development Party] AKP government, and President Erdoğan in particular, is reversing the reforms made earlier in their tenure. So this is a dark time. But my point is that there are still significant forces on the side of progress. It may take some time but I’m confident that those forces can reverse this downward trend. 

In your essay you talk about the autocrat in a general way. Where would you put Turkey talking about that term? 

On the one hand Turkey has a vigorous electoral tradition and over the last decade or so it has had a much more vigorous society and press. What I worry about is that Turkey is moving toward a period in which elections still occur but organized dissent is significantly curtailed. That obviously undermines a lot of the meaning of elections. It is part of a broader picture in which Erdoğan is intent on dismantling the checks and balances on executive authority that should exist. He has been undermining the independence of the judiciary. He has been significantly silencing the independent media. With the academic cases he is now going after organized critical voices in civil society. These are all essential checks and balances on executive authority. When checks and balances are removed, that is when a government goes in an authoritarian direction. 

The government claims that jailed journalists in Turkey are not locked up because they are journalists, but rather because their actions fall under the anti-terror law. 

There is a lot of very cheap use of the term “terrorist.” Reporting on government abuses in the fight against terrorism does not make you a terrorist. That is what journalists do, that is what civil society can do. The two Cumhuriyet journalists [Can Dündar and Erdem Gül] are now facing charges that could bring them life imprisonment, but all they did was their job as journalists. They look very much like Julian Assange, who simply received leaked government secrets. Governments are entitled to prosecute their own members for leaking information but they’re not entitled to prosecute journalists who receive that information. Assange has never been prosecuted for publishing information that was leaked. The leaker, Bradley Manning, was prosecuted. 

The world should wake up to this situation in Turkey, because Erdoğan is crossing a line here that journalists around the world treat as sacred. Journalists are entitled to publish information leaked to them, even if it is a secret. The leaker can be prosecuted but not the journalist. 

But they changed the law in Turkey, so it is quite possible. 

With that law, Turkey crossed a line with respect to freedom of the media that others do not cross. It was a deeply undemocratic move that disrespects the right to free expression and freedom of the media. 

What is HRW’s take on the Gülen movement? Do you see any sign of the allegations that they were trying to topple the democratically elected government? 

I’m aware of the allegations but I haven’t seen any evidence. If there are particular Gülenists who have done wrong, they can be prosecuted for those particular crimes. But it is wrong for the government to target the entire Gülen movement because of the misconduct of certain individuals. Criminality is an individual concept, it is not a group concept. You can’t deem an entire group criminal just because some of its members may have committed a crime. 

What is your hope for the next year so you can write a more positive report?

I hope disquiet grows within Turkey about the authoritarian trend of this government. It is dangerous to have a government that is systematically eliminating checks and balances on its power. When I say the government, I really mean - first and foremost - the president. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that Turkey is heading in a dangerous direction. I hope that the Turkish people, having lived through a better era in which the government was more in check, will resist this authoritarian decline.